UK Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday (1 May) insisted that negative reports about her talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker are just “Brussels gossip”, after a German newspaper released a damning appraisal of their meeting.
The UK PM met Juncker last Wednesday (26 May) for dinner in London, ahead of talks over Britain’s departure from the EU that are expected to begin after the country’s snap general election on 8 June. Both sides said afterwards the meeting had been constructive.
But Juncker was quoted on Sunday (30 April) by Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper (FAZ) as saying he left Downing Street “10 times more sceptical than I was before”, suggesting he and May did not see eye to eye on a range of issues.
A British government spokesperson said London does not recognise that account of events, and May addressed the issue directly in comments to supporters during an election campaign stop in north-west England.
“I have to say, that from what I’ve seen of this account, I think it’s Brussels gossip,” May said, adding again that the meeting had been constructive.
FAZ reports that Juncker tried to convince May of the Herculean nature of the task ahead by putting copies of both Croatia’s accession agreement and the bloc’s trade deal with Canada on the dinner table.
The Commission president shot down a number of May’s expectations, including her suggestion that the issue of UK and EU expat rights could be sorted at a European Council meeting at the end of June.
Juncker reportedly told the prime minister that, given complex issues like healthcare, this timetable is unrealistic.
He also informed her that documents relating to the upcoming talks will have to be published in order to satisfy the needs of the European Parliament and the other member states. May had hoped that confidential negotiations could be held in four-day-long monthly blocs.
On the issue of the UK’s so-called exit bill, which is estimated to top some €60 billion to cover British financial commitments to the EU, May allegedly told her guests that London owes Brussels no money because there is nothing in the treaties to that effect.
Juncker and Commission Brexit boss Michel Barnier, in response, reportedly told her that the EU is “not a gold club” and that an attempt to skip out on the bill would mean no trade deal and would drag national parliaments into the equation.
EU leaders signed off on a common negotiating position on Saturday (29 April) and warned the UK to have “no illusions” that a deal to retain access to European markets will be swift and easy.
The German newspaper claimed that Juncker called German Chancellor Angela Merkel early in the morning after the dinner to tell her May is living in “another galaxy”.
Merkel allegedly changed the content of a speech she would then make to the Bundestag, adding her “some in Britain still have illusions” comment.
May said that the FAZ account showed once more how difficult talks would be.
British opposition leaders criticised May’s approach to the talks with the EU following the story, including her renewed threat to walk away without a deal.
“The revelations overnight show Theresa May being guilty of astonishing arrogance and complacency,” Tim Farron, leader of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, told Sky News.
The news article, which cited senior EU officials, has raised fresh concerns that the UK prime minister has unrealistic expectations about the upcoming Brexit talks and that London may have a serious communication problem.
Opinion polls nevertheless show May’s ruling Conservatives winning the parliamentary election on 8 June with an increased majority.